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Wednesday, July 8, 2020
Today Was A Good Day For Religious Liberty At The Supreme Court
In a long-awaited decision, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the Little Sisters of the Poor in a case that dates back to the Obama Administration’s controversial contraception mandate. The Court found that the Administrative Procedures Act did not conflict the with the Court’s previous ruling that established two interim rules for answering religious exemption questions.
The first rule held that church exemptions were expanded to include an employer who “objects . . . based on its sincerely held religious beliefs,” “to its establishing, maintaining, providing, offering, or arranging [for] overage or payments for some or all contraceptive services.” The second rule established a “similar ‘moral exemption’ for employers with sincerely held moral objections to providing some or all forms of contraceptive coverage.”
The 7-2 decision was authored by Clarence Thomas and joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. Justice Kagan authored a concurring opinion which, was joined by Justice Breyer. Justice Ginsburg’s dissent was joined by Sotomayor.
The ruling is a good one and was not unexpected. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act requires the government to use the least intrusive means when religious freedom must be limited for the public good. It is difficult to argue that the needs of the nation require that Catholic nuns, who take a vow of chastity, must buy health insurance with birth control, which is against their longstanding religious beliefs.
It turned out to be a really good day for religious liberty at the Supreme Court because the Little Sisters ruling was followed by another favorable decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School. This case asked whether religious schools could terminate employees using the “ministerial exception” even if they did not hold a ministerial job title.
The Court ruled that religious school teachers are ministers even if they do not hold a job title that includes the word “minister.” The ruling, written by Justice Alito, noted that teachers at religious schools “performed vital religious duties, such as educating their students in the Catholic faith and guiding their students to live their lives in accordance with that faith” and that the “schools expressly saw them as playing a vital role in carrying out the church’s mission.”
Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Breyer, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh joined Alito in another 7-2 decision. Justices Thomas filed concurrences, which was joined by Justice Gorsuch. Justice Sotomayor was joined in her dissent by Justice Ginsburg.
The Guadalupe ruling was also a good one. It is axiomatic that religious institutions should be able to exercise control over who they employ in positions of leadership and instruction.
Other rulings are still to come. These include the eagerly-awaited decisions on President Trump’s tax returns.